From 12-28 June, Europe’s attention will turn to Azerbaijan. During these two weeks, the first ever European Games will be held in Baku, showcasing many innovative, non-Olympic sports such as 3x3 basketball, sambo (a martial art which developed in the Red Army in the 1920s) and beach football, alongside more traditional disciplines like athletics, swimming, shooting and cycling. Over 6,000 participants from 50 countries will arrive to compete across 20 sports for 253 medals, and Baku is preparing itself for a festival of sport.

Speedy Preparations

Baku has undergone dramatic development over the last two and a half years since winning the right to host the inaugural European Games at the 41st General Assembly of the European Olympic Committee held in Rome on 8 December 2012. A full range of new stadia has been built, roads renewed, the Boulevard extended, trees planted, parks created, industrial areas regenerated, young professionals trained (at The Games Academy) and foreign languages learnt, all of which will form part of the Baku 2015 legacy and help to propel Azerbaijan forward in the years to come.

Preparations for the Games have been made in record time thanks to a huge all-round effort, from the planners to the architects, designers and builders, to the organising committees, volunteers and the athletes. One organization and several people have remained central throughout - the Baku 2015 European Games Operation Committee (BEGOC), run by Azad Rahimov, the Azerbaijani Minister for Youth and Sports, and Simon Clegg, BEGOC’s Chief Operating Officer, and and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, Chair of the Baku 2015 Organising Committee.

Majestic New Sports Facilities

The Baku 2015 map includes four clusters (Village Cluster, Flag Square Cluster, City Cluster and the Western Cluster) and 18 competition venues. 12 of the venues are permanent, five have been newly built - the National Gymnastics Arena, the BMX Velopark, the Baku Aquatics Centre, Baku Shooting Centre and Olympic Stadium. Six of the venues are temporary, to be packed away following the Games. These include the Water Polo Arena, the Beach Arena, the Basketball Arena, the Mountain Bike Velopark, the triathlon venue at Bilgah Beach, and the cycling road race and time trial venues on Freedom Square.

The crown jewel is the Baku Olympic Stadium, the highest capacity stadium in Azerbaijan, built to host international Olympic-style competitions. The spectacular arena took under four years to build, can seat up to 68, 000 spectators and has a distinctly modern style designed to withstand Baku’s strong winds. The Olympic Stadium will hold the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Baku 2015 European Games and the Athletics competition. Equally impressive, however, is the regeneration of the surrounding area of Lake Boyukshor, which was created in the late nineteenth century as an oil-waste reservoir and subsequently earned a reputation as one of the world’s most polluted lakes.

Nearby is the National Gymnastics Arena, a new purpose-built venue designed to host rhythmic and artistic gymnastics. Equipped with special technology, the arena can be adapted to fit the size and nature of the event taking place, from small and intimate (5,000 seats) to larger competitions (9,000). The complex has training and competition areas, auditoria, gyms, an underground car park, canteens and offices – everything a world-class gymnast could need.

Built in a formerly disused industrial area of the Baku bay, the Baku Aquatics Centre is a beautifully streamlined complex with a design reminiscent of water, situated on a newly extended part of the Seaside Boulevard. The centre has three pools - for training, competition and diving - and a Games capacity of 2003 spectators. Over 800 athletes will compete here in the swimming and diving events at Baku 2015, following which parts of the complex will be open for public use.

The brand-new Baku Shooting Centre (500 capacity) is some distance from the city centre (30 minutes drive) in the western suburbs. Its territory spans over 19.6 hectares which will host various types of rifle, pistol and clay pigeon shooting tournaments at Baku 2015 and in the future. The centre also boasts all sorts of comforts such as cafes, conference halls, broadband and even a hotel. Also in the western suburbs but on the Caspian coast is the BMX Velopark, which can accommodate 1600 spectators.

Existing facilities have also been renovated and brought up to a standard worthy of international competition. They include the Baku Sports Hall (badminton, table tennis - 918 capacity), the crown-shaped Heydar Aliyev Arena (judo, wrestling, sambo – 5,000 capacity), the Stalin-era Tofiq Bahramov Stadium (archery - 1200 capacity) and the leisurely Kur Sport and Rowing Centre in Mingachevir (canoe sprint – 1,274 capacity).

Other Baku 2015 stadia include the Water Polo Arena (water polo – 1,282 capacity), the Beach Arena (beach soccer, beach volleyball – 1,506 capacity), the Basketball Arena (3x3 basketball – 1,843 capacity), the Crystal Hall (volleyball - 3796 capacity; boxing, fencing, karate, taekwondo – approx. 2,000 capacity), the Mountain Bike Velopark (mountain biking – 500 capacity) and Bilgah Beach (triathlon – approx. 1500 capacity).

The athletes will stay in the purpose-built Olympic Village (Athletes’ Village), a collection of stunning high-rise apartment blocks (13 in total) situated in the Nizami district of Baku with three and four-room apartments. Equipped with restaurants, cinemas, shops and relaxation areas, the Athletes Village is designed to feel like a home away from home and allow athletes to focus on attaining peak performance.

A Sporting Legacy

And of course, the impressive sporting facilities aren’t just for the first European Games and will be used for further national and international events to come. Over the next few years Azerbaijan will host several other global sporting events, such as the under-17 European Football Championship (2016), Formula One (2016 – The Baku European Grand Prix), the Chess Olympiad (2016) and the Islamic Solidarity Games (2017).

In 2020 the Baku Olympic Stadium will host a quarterfinal and three group matches at the European Football Championship, which will take place in a combination of 13 European cities. In such a way, Baku 2015 is just a sign of things to come and a long road of international sport in Azerbaijan lies ahead. Who knows, perhaps even a summer Olympics?

But there are several other objectives for Baku 2015 too. Locally, it is hoped that the new sporting infrastructure, Baku 2015 brand and general sporting fever will filter down through society, encourage Azerbaijanis to do sport and promote healthy ways of living. On a global scale, Baku 2015 hopes to create enough ripples and excitement throughout the sporting community to make the European Games a permanent sporting fixture.

There is little left to say except - Let the Games begin! *All stadium capacities given as far as possible refer to seating during Baku 2015.

Photos by Eldar Farzaliyev